There are various theories about where the term nerd came from. Dr. Seuss mentioned a character called a “nerd” in his 1950 children’s book If I Ran the Zoo, although there was nothing special about the nerd (it was just part of a rhyming sentence). A year later, Newsweek said that among teenagers in Detroit, “Someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd.” The slang got reprinted elsewhere, including in an Associated Press story three years later.

Some believe it’s not possible for the Seuss character and the Detroit term to be linked because the terms were too close in succession. Ben Zimmer, the former New York Times “On Language” columnist, wrote in August in an essay in The Boston Globe, “Speculation about the word’s origin began brewing in the 1980s. [Some believe] nerd had something to do with Mortimer Snerd, the dummy used by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen beginning in the late 1930s … Nerd has also been explained as a variation on nert, surfer slang for a nut … And then there are the acronyms, always a popular source of faux etymology—for example, ‘Neurotic Engineers in R&D.’”

While the term’s origin may be disputed, most agree that it caught fire in the 1980s, an era in which pop culture exploded. Cable television expanded, computers became accessible to the average youth, and suddenly, there were shows and movies focusing on those teenage computer users. TV programs like Whiz Kids and Square Pegs and teen films like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club highlighted different social groups in schools, including jocks, cheerleaders, and nerds. And of course the Revenge of the Nerds film franchise—the original appeared in 1984, followed by sequels in 1987, 1992, and 1994—put nerds front and center.

By the time the generation of 1980s nerds grew up, they began having a sense of humor about their youthful struggles to fit in, and perhaps a sense of pride of having overcome the taunting. Even Hollywood icons like Nicole Kidman and Sharon Stone started claiming they had been outcasts in school, while it was the rare starlet who would admit to having been Homecoming Queen.

Brainy outcasts had been around for decades, including Dalton Doiley in the Archie comics (who was an inventor), but nerds represent something new in the culture. “I don’t think [the word nerd] was around even when I was a grad student,” says Mitchell P. Marcus, the RCA Professor of Artificial Intelligence in Penn’s Department of Computer and Information Science (and an A-list nerd based on that title alone), who has been teaching linguistics and computers here since 1987. “It really has changed. It’s one of those situations where people have taken a word applied to them that’s negative and turned it into a positive by kind of taking it over. I was at the [MIT] Artificial Intelligence Lab in the early ’70s and the word people used to refer to themselves in the same positive way was ‘hacker,’ which originally meant something quite positive. Then it became a quite negative word.”

These days nerd is mostly used “with a heavy dose of irony,” Fatsis says. “My nerd passion, Scrabble, is something easily mocked. If you mention that you memorize tens of thousands of words to play a game, you get lots of looks. Or, you used to get looks. But I wrote a book about that. It made people appreciate a world they didn’t know about. Hundreds of thousands of people now play Scrabble because it’s easy to do it digitally. Nobody sort of laughs about this game anymore, except the recent news about some guy who asked [officials] to strip search his opponent because he was accused of hiding a tile.”

Most of those interviewed agree that Nerd Nite is a sign of the Internet making it acceptable to love one unique thing. But Pasles says he was still taken aback by hearing the term used in a positive way.

“That’s one of the things that’s hard to get over,” he says. “As someone who had a Commodore 64, I was brutalized for being a nerd. A few years ago, Time Out New York or New York Magazine had a picture of a hipster with the words, ‘Nerd is Cool.’ It was hard for me to take. Now, everyone is using a computer; all movies are based on comic books. Nerd is not a putdown anymore. It’s a word that has no meaning beyond describing someone who is interested in something.”

The ease of communications, and the accessibility of technology, has changed worlds in more than one way. Pasles might not have had the courage to go right up to the dark-haired girl who presented a slide show on sex and technology, but e-mail was the great equalizer. (For those wondering, his missive said something like, “Your presentation was shocking to most of the people there but I wasn’t shocked.”)

Future generations of Penn students will likely be filled with many whose parents met, in some form, because of the Internet—not just from computer dating, but because of activities that were publicized or popularized over newsgroups, Facebook, and social networks yet to come that allow people with unique interests to find each other.

“You hate when something obscure and cool like a band no one’s ever heard of becomes a catch phrase,” says Lucy Laird. “I hope kids these days understand what being a nerd is about, rather than thinking it [only] means being really smart and making a lot of money in technology. It means being very passionate and consumed by knowledge, and taking everything to the next level.”


At October’s New York Nerd Nite, Wasowski announced that a small publishing company had made a deal to start a bimonthly Nerd Nite magazine—the old-fashioned, printed kind—so that people in one part of the world can learn the same things as those in another. Subscription cost is $40 annually, according to the Nerd Nite website. Promised for the first issue, scheduled to appear in January, are articles on Stomatopods (aka “mantis shrimp”)—“thumbsplitters of the briny deep”—and “Jumpsuits! The garment of tomorrow, today.”

“We think every single person on Earth, in some form, is a nerd,” Wasowski says. “Every single person knows one thing at least more than anyone else does. Probably someone like [New England Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady, the typical definition of an anti-nerd or jock, could tell you how to run the exact pass route to avoid a safety 12 yards from the line of scrimmage. No Trekkie or scientist can tell you that.

“The big point the publishing company made is, most things now really do tend to skew and cater toward the lowest common denominator,” Wasowski adds. “This shows people want to be challenged.”

Fatsis sees a bigger picture, that the evolution of the word nerd reflects shifts in the way people communicate, learn, and meet. Future generations will look at knowledge differently. “It’s exposure,” he says. “Everything has an opportunity now to find a community. The Internet serves that very democratizing effect.”

Caren Lissner Matzner C’93 lives in Hoboken with her family and writes novels. See carenlissner.com for more nerdery.
 


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